Monday, December 05, 2011

Art and Craft: Bachelor Dad on Her Doorstep (1)

Michelle Douglas, the author of Bachelor Dad on Her Doorstep (2009), "made my heroine and hero, each in their own way, artists" and I was intrigued by the ways in which the novel touches on matters related to art and books and hints at possible similarities between them.

The novel is dedicated "To Varuna, The Writers' House" and, as Douglas has written, "The inspiration for Bachelor Dad On Her Doorstep came from a setting: the Australian Blue Mountains where I spent a week on a writers’ retreat," presumably at Varuna, which "is in the World Heritage Area, the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales, Australia." Since Douglas's "favourite place in the mountains is Leura – seriously cute, plus it has one of my all-time favourite bookshops [...] I based my fictitious town of Clara Falls on Leura."

Jaz Harper, Douglas's heroine, owns a bookshop on the "main street" (15) of Clara Falls, so the novel literally places books at the heart of the community. In the final chapter a book fair gives Clara Falls the chance to demonstrate that "In this town [...] we pull together" (267); there are "Oodles and oodles of people. All mingling and laughing out the front of her bookshop" (265) and "a cheer went up when the townsfolk saw her" (266). Like Jaz's biker friends, this chapter seems to suggest that "supporting independent bookshops is a good cause" (146).

Jaz, who also "mean[s] to open an art gallery" (164), brings together books and art when she decides to decorate the bookshop, formerly owned by her mother, with a mural of the dead Frieda:
She'd sketched in the top half of Frieda's face with a fine pencil and the detail stole his [Connor's] breath. [...] Beneath her fingers, her mother's eyes and brow came alive - so familiar and so ... vibrant.
Jaz had honed her skill, her talent, until it sang. The potential he'd recognised in her work eight years ago - the potential anyone who'd seen her work couldn't have failed to recognise - had come of age. (112)
Brief as this passage is, it seems to suggest that the production of the best art requires practice as well as raw talent and this lesson is emphasised later in the novel when Jaz encourages Connor Reed, the hero and Jaz's former boyfriend, to pick up some charcoals and try sketching for the first time in years:
He'd lost count of how many pictures he'd drawn. [...]
Jaz sighed and chuckled and teased him, just like she used to do. She pointed to one of the drawings and laughed. 'Is that supposed to be a bird?'
'I was trying to give the impression of time flying.'
'It needs work,' she said with a grin. [...] 'But look at how you've captured the way the light shines through the trees here. It's beautiful. [...] You can draw again, Connor.' (174-75)
Jaz forces him to draw because she wants him "to know its joys, its freedoms once more ... to bow to its demands and feel whole" (170). This perhaps describes the experience of creativity not just of visual artists, but also of those who are creative in other media, including writers.

In addition, it seemed to me that the novel explores what can be classified as "art." In their youth Jaz and Connor used to
take their charcoals and sketch pads to one of the lookouts.
She'd sit on a rock hunched over her pad, intent on capturing every single detail of the view spread out before her, concentrating fiercely on all she saw. Connor would lean back against a tree, his sketch pad propped against one knee, charcoal lightly clasped, eyes half-closed, and his fingers would play across the page with seemingly no effort at all.
Their high school art teacher had given them identical marks [...]. Connor's drawings had [...] captured an essence, the hidden potential of the thing. Connor had drawn the optimistic future. (50)
It is perhaps logical, given the nature of his talent, that Connor "hadn't picked up a stick of charcoal since" (42) Jaz left town and he no longer envisaged an "optimistic future" for himself; he
relinquished his dream of art school.
'I run a building contractor's business now here in Clara Falls.' (41)
However, although Jaz is led to believe that Connor has "given up his art" (52) and is now merely "Painting shop signs [...] All that potential wasted" (50-51), and despite the fact that he believes he has "turned his back on art to become a carpenter" (169), when Jaz sees the "handmade wood-turned furniture" (189) he has made, "She marvelled at their craftsmanship, at the attention paid to detail, at the absolute perfection of each piece" (189) and tells him that "you didn't give up your art. You just ... redirected it" (190).

For her part, Jaz is now "a world-class tattoo artist, if Frieda's boasts could be believed" (43) and despite the fact that she herself used to think that "Connor had more talent in his little finger than she possessed in her whole body. She merely drew what was there, copied what was in front of her eyes" (50), in fact when she creates a tattoo it
wasn't just any simple tattoo. It was an indelible photograph captured on this man's arm for ever.
It was a work of art. (152)
To the man who has been tattooed, however, it is "a memorial" (153) to his dead daughter. Thus, like Connor's carpentry, the tattoo is art which is very functional.

Art, this novel seems to suggest, is not limited to 'high' culture, but can be found in creations which might be described as 'craft,' or 'popular culture.' Indeed, one might even wish to add to that list the work of Mr Sears, the baker. His carrot cake "tasted divine" (101) and he certainly behaves as though he considers his creations to be special: "he placed each of the three cakes in a separate cardboard box with the same care and reverence mothers showed to newborn babies" (146).

  • Douglas, Michelle. Bachelor Dad on Her Doorstep. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009.


  1. I also find it fascinating as how a well-written romance can either introduce or deepen our appreciation for something such as the visual arts and creativity in general...

  2. You're a writer, so I wonder if perhaps that makes you more attuned to the similarities that exist between the various arts? Lorena, who blogs at Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood, recently posted that:

    I believe that novel writing is not that different from painting, except that in the visual arts, an (accidental) mistake is a lot more obvious than in the written word. I didn’t always believe this. When I turned to writing fiction, I thought that because I was literate and had good ideas, I could publish a novel. With time and many bumps along the road, I came to realize that craft is just as important as ideas, enthusiasm and dare I say, talent.

  3. Sounds to me that Michelle has used art an evocative metaphor for the relationship between Jazz and Connor.

    'But look at how you've captured the way the light shines through the trees here. It's beautiful. [...] You can draw again, Connor.' (174-75)

    And indeed they can fall in love again...

  4. That's a really good point, Kaz. I hadn't thought about it much before, but their lives definitely affect and reflect their art. As I mentioned, once Jazz leaves and Connor abandons thoughts of the future they'd planned together, he also abandons his drawing.

    It's not mentioned that Jazz abandons drawing (I assume she doesn't), but it's certainly the case that she shifts her focus to tattooing. Tattoos, like Jazz's time away from Connor, can be painful to gain but then express identity, and it's thanks to her painful time away from Connor and Clara Falls that Jazz creates an artistic identity that's quite separate from Connor's and also learns to function as an independent adult. When they'd been together as teenagers, Jazz had always felt that Connor was the better artist and "Jaz had been awed by Connor's love - grateful to him for it, unable to believe he could truly love a girl like her. And she'd hidden behind his popularity, his ease with people, instead of standing on her own two feet" (129). As she admits, "I needed to find my own place in the world that was separate from yours" (235).

    Connor's reluctance to start drawing again parallels his reluctance to let Jazz back into his life and his initial clumsiness in drawing has its parallels in some of the awkward ways he behaves around her, so it makes sense to me that, as you say, drawing again serves as a metaphor for becoming romantically involved again.

    Jazz says of Connor's drawing ability that "You had it in you all the time. You just had to let it out, that's all. [...] If you ever turn your back on your gift again, it will desert you. For ever!" (176). I think perhaps he also had his love for her in him all the time, he just didn't let it out. And if he'd let her get away from Clara Falls again, this time she probably would have deserted him "For ever."

  5. Laura, I really enjoyed your critique of Bachelor Dad, and you're right -- art is very important to the story. When Jaz and Connor were teenagers their relationship and their art were the most important things to them, almost defining them. When their relationship broke down, I wanted to show corresponding repercussions for their art.

    Like you point out, Connor turns his back on his art -- but then he does start to create that wonderful wood-turned furniture, and it could be argued that's because he does have love in his life again in the shape of his young daughter, Mel. Jaz has to take her art in a direction she'd never considered before because she needs the income.

    Likewise, when they are rebuilding their relationship I wanted that reflected in their art too. Hence, Connor learning to draw again and Jaz's struggles to finish her picture of Frieda -- her creative block mirroring her romantic block (so to speak).

    Laura said: Brief as this passage is, it seems to suggest that the production of the best art requires practice as well as raw talent"
    Oh, yes, I believe this wholeheartedly!

  6. Laura, thanks very much for this post. I thoroughly enjoyed this book but your post brings it alive with a new perspective. One of the things I appreciated in the story was the link between the wellbeing of the characters and their creativity. It can be so true in real life and Michelle used that very effectively in the book.

  7. Michelle and Annie, I'm delighted you both enjoyed my post. Since romances have given me a lot of pleasure as a reader, I like the idea of being able to give something back to romance authors.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book but your post brings it alive with a new perspective.

    That's probably the nicest thing someone could say to a literary critic!

  8. Sarah Black's "Marathon Cowboys" (m/m) is also about art. One hero is an emerging cartoonist and the other a painter. Part of their engagement with each other is an exploration of doing their art; what it is, what it means,the process. One of the things I liked a lot in this exploration was the sense of the fierce work that goes into 'getting into the bones'of making something real and true. This is a great little novella.

  9. Thanks, Merrian. It's interesting that artists are so often depicted " 'getting into the bones' of making something real and true," whereas poets tend to be treated rather differently. As discussed by Eric some time ago (you need to scroll down a bit, to the section on "Foils and Fakers"), "Heyer makes poetry seem an art of the solitary self. It may be recited, even given to others, but it’s fundamentally about its own concerns, its own artistry."

  10. The art in the "Marathon Cowboys" story is definitely about narratives but also about being very culturally attuned and aware and using this awareness as building blocks. There is also a very strong political sense brought into the development of both the paintings and the choices Lorenzo makes for his cartooning. Colours in the paintings are important because they are carefully chosen to represent place, identity and culture for example. Music is referenced and thinking out loud and discussion is part of the creative process. The process of doing art is also the source of conflict between the two heroes so there is a reflection on art as symbolism and art as representative and the intersection of this and how both are 'true'. So this is about art as active in the now and explaining us to ourselves - a dialogue.

    This is a real contrast with the representation of poetry sugested above. Funnily, I have just read AM Riley's m/m "Goldilocks: a man, a jersey and a tight end" which introduces a secondary romance of a deeply shy almost inarticulate young man who turns out to have great potential as a poet and whose relationship grows from meeting someone who recognises this. So this absolutely fits as an example of how Eric discusses poetry's representation in the genre.